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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cameron walks into human rights morass

Cameron walks into human rights morass

A break in Thailand, courtesy of the country's old-Etonian premier, could plunge the PM into a row over abuse of political prisoners

David Leppard The Sunday Times (£)

David Cameron, seen here with wife Samantha, was at Eton with Abhisit Vejjajiva (Ben Birchall)

David Cameron is planning to leave the austerity of Britain behind and fly to Thailand for a luxury Christmas break that threatens to land him in a human rights row.

Reports circulating in Bangkok claim the prime minister and his family have been invited on a private trip by Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai premier, who studied with Cameron at Eton.

The two men, both in their mid-forties, were contemporaries at the school, along with Boris Johnson, the London mayor. Both went on to study at Oxford. Cameron was known even then to fellow students as “the prime minister”, while Abhisit was nicknamed “Veggie”.

Thai newspaper reports have claimed they have been “buddies” ever since, although Downing Street sources sought this weekend to deny that.

The two men have followed remarkably similar political trajectories — but only one of them came to power in a successful election.

Abhisit took charge of Thailand amid political turmoil and Cameron’s trip is expected to prompt scrutiny of allegations of human rights violations linked to his government.

Asked whether she was aware Cameron had been invited to Thailand by Abhisit, an official spokeswoman in Bangkok replied: “Yes. I am aware of it but I think it’s a private visit. I believe he is travelling to Bangkok at the end of this year around Christmas time and he’s going to spend some time in Bangkok and some time at one of our beaches.”

If Cameron is accompanied by his wife, Samantha, it will be the couple’s first long-haul trip since the birth of their daughter, Florence, in the summer.

Thailand has been in the grip of long-term disorder. There has been a security crackdown since a coup in 2006 which saw the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire, overthrown.

“Cameron is going to fly away from the cuts for a five-star Christmas to a country run by his old Eton contemporary,” claimed one insider who said he was familiar with the trip. “He’s walking into a big humanitarian row. Human rights groups will be outraged as the country is still subject to a big crackdown.”

The career paths of Cameron and the British-born Abhisit are similar. They are both relatively young and from privileged backgrounds. Abhisit hails from a wealthy family of Thai-Chinese origin. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1964, he was in a more senior year to Cameron at Eton. Like the prime minister, Abhisit read PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford.

Much of his political power base is in southern Thailand and in Bangkok’s growing population of educated professionals. He has had less success in attracting the support of working-class and rural Thais.

In 1992, Abhisit joined Thailand’s oldest party, the Democrats, and — at the age of 27 — entered parliament as one of its youngest members. He tried and failed to become party leader in 2001 but then took over the post in 2005, the same year Cameron won the Tory leadership.

The Democrats failed to win power in national elections. However, in December 2008 the constitutional court found the ruling party led by Thaksin’s allies guilty of electoral fraud and banned it.

Amid the chaos of a human blockade at Bangkok airport caused by rival demonstrators, a few Thaksin loyalists changed sides. This enabled Abhisit to form a new government and become prime minister without calling elections.

Although Abhisit is seen by many as a moderate who wants national reconciliation, he has come in for criticism by human rights groups over the deaths of 91 people, mostly unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, in Bangkok during the “redshirt protests” in April and May this year. In a report this month, Amnesty International called on Abhisit to lift the emergency decree and internal security act imposed in the wake of the disturbances.

The decree allows for 30 days’ detention without charge or trial and the use of unofficial detention centres. “The lack of consistent, unhindered and independent monitoring of the detention centres, facilitates torture and other ill-treatment,” said Amnesty’s report.

In August, Thailand’s ministry of justice reported that the government was holding 209 detainees from the spring protests under the decree. Some are reported by Amnesty to have been beaten in prison.

The decree also authorises extensive censorship of news and information outlets and confers immunity of prosecution on officials who violate human rights laws in the course of their duties. At least 1,500 websites, radio and television stations and print publications have been disabled or censored since April.

Details of Cameron’s trip remain secret for security reasons. But a British source said claims circulating in Bangkok that Cameron had been invited by Abhisit were incorrect.

His most likely beach destination is a resort popular with British tourists. Another favoured winter destination, Chiang Mai, is a hotbed of redshirt sympathisers.

Additional reporting: Michael Sheridan, Bangkok

Prime Minister Vejjajiva cracked down on Thai anti-government protesters (Narong Sangnak)

Comment: Shouldn't David Cameron be addressing the issue of our 75,000 political prisoners being denied their human right to the vote?

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